October 18th, 2012 by Michael Orr
With just nine days left in the Portland Timbers’ 2012 season, the offseason is no longer a far off hopeful period but a four month sprint that is looming in the immediate future. Caleb Porter is now two months away from joining the club and the far reaching changes expected to accompany his arrival are much closer to materializing. For the club, Porter’s hiring is an even more important decision than the original hiring of John Spencer. The new manager has been given time to evaluate current players, will be given an entire offseason to begin the process of acquiring new players and will presumably have the 2013 season to bridge the gap between the current squad and his ideal set-up.
While Porter may indeed change the fortunes of the Timbers, it is important to realize that there is very little chance of his being highly successful next season. That may be frustrating for fans who have had enough misery in 2012 to last several seasons, but the reality is that a complete overhaul, both in playing style and personnel, takes time. It is instructive to look at Porter’s coaching career at the University of Akron for a peek at how this could play out. In his first season at Akron in 2006, Porter’s Zips had a decent record (14-6-1), but failed to reach the NCAA tournament. Each of the next three years, Porter’s record improved, as did the team’s post-season exploits. By 2009, Akron went undefeated (23-0-2) before losing in the NCAA final. The Zips finally won the national title in 2010 with a tremendously deep squad.
The key take away from his college run is that Porter’s teams progressively improved as the players at his disposal became only players he recruited. By 2010, not a single player on the squad had been at Akron before Porter’s arrival and were therefore hand-picked to fit the system he introduced back in 2006. While that does not exclusively explain the shift from good program to national powerhouse, the need for specific players for a specific system cannot be overstated.
That relationship between system, players and time is one that could well be mirrored at Portland, provided the third category is given. Importantly, Porter will need time to adjust the personnel at the Timbers until it reaches a level sufficient to maintain his possession-oriented style. To be sure, several adequate but not optimal players will inhabit positions in Porter’s XI in 2013 and perhaps beyond, before the overhaul can be completed. Though fans would surely like to see a clean sweep of the roster, that is simply impossible within the restrictions of the MLS contracts and collective bargaining agreement.
With that in mind, a conversation I found instructive on a similar topic came from this week’s A-League Show, a Melbourne-based podcast available on iTunes. The topic was Ange Postecoglou, the new manager at Melbourne Victory. For quick background, Postecoglou was the manager of Brisbane Roar from mid-2009 through the 2011/12 season. He plays a style that, while not a carbon copy of Porter’s, does work well for a comparison and reference point. Like Porter, Postecoglou’s system requires certain types of players and his arrival in Brisbane in 2009 and now in Melbourne in 2012 required a dramatic overhaul in personnel. That overhaul eventually produced back-to-back A-League titles for Postecoglou’s Roar in 2011 and 2012, yet looked like it could be a disaster when he was first hired. Now, having moved to Melbourne in the offseason, Postecoglou is faced with another transition, one that will test the patience of Victory fans. The podcast explains well the difficulties in turning over a squad:
“It is a difficult situation because you’ve got a team where half the team are new players that Ange has brought in who he thinks suit his system. Then you’ve got the other half who are still there from the old regime, who haven’t been moved on, basically because they’re under contract and you’ve got restrictions in the A-League and you can’t just get rid of players like that and don’t have the money to pay them out. So this isn’t Ange’s team, this is half of his team. If Ange is going to win something with Melbourne Victory, the team is going to look completely different from what it is now. You see a lot of the players that are in this squad that are from the old regime, they’re not up to it. They might get better under the system in a few months. They’re going to win games this season, they’re going to get better. It’s only a matter of time before they start improving. But they’re not going to get to the level that Ange wants them to this season. When you look at the way Ange came in at Brisbane Roar, he came in half-way through the season and they ended up second from bottom on the table. At the end of that season he got rid of all those players he didn’t need and then came back and won the league the next year. I’m not saying that’s exactly how it’s going to play out at Victory, but that is going to be his tactic to get rid of the players he doesn’t need when he can and bring in the players to build the squad that he needs to bring success to the Victory.”
The key line, among many interesting thoughts, is the idea that, “This isn’t Ange’s team, this is half of his team.” That is a phrase that will be worth remembering as Porter takes over and begins to mold the squad in Portland. MLS does have some advantages over the A-League in player acquisition (or disposal, as the case may be), particularly in the form of trades. Whether the squad is to be bolstered by an addition, or simply streamlined by subtraction – or of course both could be possible in a single trade – Porter will be able to make moves that Postecoglou and his A-League colleagues cannot. That aside, the entire project is a time-consuming process that simply cannot be achieved in a single offseason. Postecoglou had the benefit of more than five months of offseason to woo new players, install his system and prepare for the 2012/13 season. Porter will have just three months to do the same thing.
Postecoglou built a dominant team in Brisbane, one that defeated his new Melbourne Victory side 5-0 when they played last weekend. This is not to suggest Porter will do the same in a short time at Portland, but there is a model beyond his own collegiate record. As previously mentioned, the key ingredient at the Timbers will need to be time. The club have turned over the reins to Porter and will be successful or disappointing based on his abilities to recruit and develop players. A poor record next season could be the result of the large-scale tinkering Porter will presumably undertake as 2012 fades into 2013, but that would not automatically mean the hiring is a failure. Several years will be required to fully shift the Portland Timbers from a dysfunctional, insufficient side to the efficient, exciting brand for which Porter is heralded. With only half a team, at best, next season, patience will be the key word.